Philadelphia Museum of Art: thoughts on making the Parkway temple to impressionism more accomodating and more relevant

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is among the country’s largest, oldest and most influential.

Still, founded in 1876 and looming on the Ben Franklin Parkway for 90 years, the Museum’s leadership knows being a historic, cultural icon in Philadelphia doesn’t make it immune to financial distress. The bankruptcy of the once legendary Philadelphia Orchestra has made that clear.

It’s with this that several of the museum’s most active board members brought together in late January something of a focus group of mostly 30 and 40-something young leaders in Philadelphia to help discuss its future. Thankfully, Liz Dow of Leadership Philadelphia, which largely invited the focus group members, brought me into the conversation.

The conversation largely lacked a focus that is most often seen as a determining factor in successful focus groups. Still, the 90-minute lunch and dialogue was interesting enough that more than a month later, I find myself with a few dozen swirling thoughts on the subject. I wanted to share them here.

  • The Museum of Art, like the orchestra and opera and ballet and other large, old, cultural staples, is vital in characterizing Philadelphia as the international city that it largely deserves to be.
  • Most any of the cultural organizations in Philadelphia I know have some rather affordable opportunities, but they are not widely known in new communities or not seen as practical. For example, a trip to the museum on the first Sunday of any month is far cheaper than the average family trip to a Phillies game, but I doubt most of my neighbors in Fishtown know it.
  • To follow through in making sure more people about it, all projects and outreach efforts the Museum has (including Art after 5 and first Sunday discounts) should follow three steps in identifying (a) the program itself, (b) the outreach effort to reach the intended audience and (c) the followup, which appears to be most missing, in which there is a sense of how to ensure that audience is following through. i.e. Sure, the Museum is pay-as-you-go-admission on the first Sunday of every month, and, sure, every student that comes through in a school trip may get a flyer about museum programming, but is that having the desired impact?
  • For a future focus group, the Museum needs to make more clear what its goals are: does it want more members or more occasional or one-time visitors; does it want more racial or class diversity? Strategies surely vary depending on these goals, and a focused goal matters.
  • What attendance is most important to grow?: members, tourists,  young professionals (future members?), middle-class families, working class or low-income residents, or someone else? The more specific, the more successful.
  • In addition to its traditional board of directors, the Museum should have an outreach board, made up of leaders in the various communities it wants to reach. Those members can spread awareness of first Sunday discounts at civic association groups and in church basements.
  • A cultural institution is allowed to be stuffy, indeed it is inherent in its branding. Still, offering a pathway to its understandings has been an entrenched goal for at least a generation, which is why field trips and youth classes have become staples at cultural institutions across the country.
  • Three ways the Museum has to be competitive: (a) the traditional, to be seen as a force in the vanguard of art, (b) the cool, to attract the art leaders of tomorrow, (c) outreach, to be accepting, tolerant and offer access for the future.
  • To have impact in the above three ways, a clear online editorial strategy should be adopted to connect its museum programming to the more viral online world. The Museum should have filled the role of theartblog.com before it existed, but it still has the opportunity to be an informational umbrella group for art in the city. Yet the Museum’s web presence is still rather limited and nowhere near as visionary as its leadership might suggest its collections are. [Disclosure: Yes, I do this for a living, but it seems to relevant to not mention.]
  • The exhibit of work from Zoe Strauss, a young, living, local photographer, was celebrated as being innovative and buzzy, kicked off with a DJd event. So why not have a small, dedicated wing for a standing exhibit for a (perhaps young) active, emerging Philadelphia artist? It can be both marketing for the future, footprint in cool and homage to its city’s respected art community.